Portland Trail Blazers (16-24) vs Utah Jazz (17-20)
Wednesday, January 13
Moda Center | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSN; 620 AM
Portland injury report: None | Utah injury report: Derrick Favors (Game Time Decision - Back), Alec Burks (Out - Ankle), Dante Exum (Out for Season - Knee)
SBN Affiliate: SLC Dunk | Blazer's Edge Night 2016
Tonight’s matchup features the youngest team in the league, the Utah Jazz (average age 24.3, according to RealGM) visiting a team in the Blazers that is just behind them in youth (24.6) and only a little further behind in the standings for the prospective eighth seed in the West. If Portland wants to gain ground or at least keep pace with the Jazz, this kicks off a critical stretch for both teams: only two of Utah’s next 14 opponents are on the right side of the playoff picture currently, while after this contest, only one of Portland’s next nine opponents would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.
The Jazz were a popular pick to be in the position they’re now in, living up to the dark horse hype despite myriad injuries — which help account for a recent stretch from December 11 to January 7 where they dropped 10 of 15 games. But they’ve welcomed back ‘Gobzilla’ (aka center Rudy Gobert) this week after an absence of 20 games, and the result has been two convincing victories: at home against a good Miami squad, and on the road against the yellowish-purple abomination known as the Lakers. And more help may be on the way as soon as tonight, as the team-leader in PER, power forward Derrick Favors, is a game-time decision after sitting out the last ten games with back spasms.
No matter who is on the floor, the Jazz play slow and steady. Their pace is slowest in the league, but it works out OK since they have a high offensive rebound percentage (26.7 percent, No. 4 in the NBA), sink a good number of free throws (17.8, No. 11 in the league), and are better than average at hitting three-pointers (35.8 percent, No. 12). And that pace number could be looked at another way – they are one of the most deliberate and patient teams in the NBA, consistently moving the ball around and averaging the most touches per game.
Plus, they have a pretty good defense. They allow the third fewest points, while being in the top third at turnover creation percentage. However, they have yet to get their defense to the level that they consistently showed for the second part of last year after Enes Kanter was traded, when they became a historically elite unit.
A good degree of that regression on defense can be attributed to the absence of Gobert (9.1 PPG, 9.7 REB), who missed the last meeting against Portland. In the 17 games he has played, he has allowed an opponent field goal percentage of 36.7, which is the best in the NBA for players appearing in at least 10 games and averaging at least 20 minutes. Utah’s best defensive lineup by far is the one they’ve run out most often with Gobert in the middle – it lets up a full ten points less than their next best lineup.
What Gobert means to the defense, Favors is to the offense. He’s a versatile scoring threat with game both inside and out (16.8 PPG) and a 265-pound load on the boards (8.6 REB). If he’s active tonight, it would be a huge boost to Utah.
Even without Favors, the Jazz have a number of players who are unafraid to step up. The man who has held the reins steady amid this season’s injury chaos has been emerging point forward Gordon Hayward (19.3 PPG, 4.9 REB, 3.1 AST). The Jazz offense is at its best with the ball in the sixth-year man’s capable hands; he has a number of crafty moves and shots, takes it to the rack with authority, and is hitting 38.7 percent of his threes. He also draws attention which helps free up teammates – he gets a fair number of ‘hockey assists’ with all the ball movement Utah does.
While SG Rodney Hood hasn’t always been efficient (41.1 percent shooting), he has been fearless. He is starting to assert himself in his second year out of Duke, having recently scored 32 points while hitting the key go-ahead shots twice with under a minute to play in an overtime win over Memphis. He’s averaging 12.9 PPG and 2.7 AST.
After being a starter for most of his first two seasons, Trey Burke has responded to coming off the bench this year with career-best efficiency, and an eFG percentage of 49.8—up from 43.0 last year.
The scorers are supported by a number of scrappy role players who have found their own brands of success. Center Jeff Withey has been something of a revelation in his first year with the team after a couple of years buried on the Pelicans’ bench. Given a shot to play on a short-handed team, Withey has held opponents to a 39.9 field goal percentage—the same as Serge Ibaka. He also currently sits second on the team in PER.
Guard Chris Johnson is a tenacious defender with a high motor, while forward Trevor Booker is his aggressive-energy-guy reflection under the rim. Stretch-four Trey Lyles has been playing the ‘Noah Vonleh role’ for Utah: starting and bringing 20-year old athleticism and heaps of potential to the court, but little on the scorer’s sheet. Joe Ingles is a plodding glue guy who can hit from range if you don’t pay him due diligence (38.5 percent 3-point FG). And don’t turn your back on PG Raul Neto — he has made a habit of picking off careless inbounds passes and springing traps just across the midcourt line, and can also knock down threes (37.4 percent).
So with several teams nipping at their heels and without a postseason win since 2010, are the Jazz serious or pretenders? Why don’t we ask coach Quin Snyder?
In case you’re not picking up what he’s putting down, let’s just look at a few more top Google hits of him:
Alright man, take it easy. You look like you might need a snack, being perhaps more than a little hangry. But you do, in fact, have a good chance of being summarily disemboweled by the Warriors or Spurs in the first round. So have at it if you want.
Then again, since the sixth seed should be the goal, stay hungry my friend.
What the Blazers need to do to win:
Exploit point guard inadequacies: Neto and Burke have been sieves defensively, meaning whoever gets marked by them should take advantage. The duo have also been inconsistent at running the offense. With a concerted effort to keep the ball out of Hayward’s and Hood’s hands and forcing the Jazz to make plays through the point, you raise your chance of winning possessions. Speaking of winning possessions...
Capitalize on the Offensive Glass: As mentioned earlier, the Jazz are strong on the O-glass, with the Blazers right behind them at fifth in the league in O-Rebound percentage. But why is it that the Jazz are merely middle of the pack when it comes to defensive rebounding? It could well be partly due to the leaky D at point guard, which gets bigs out of position as they have to stop penetrators. Being active underneath the rim could lead to some easy putbacks for the athletic Blazers.
Let the Jazz foul: Some may argue that Utah’s franchise name itself is a personal foul. While the state has not formally announced itself as a sworn enemy of music, the original filming of "Footloose" did take place there. You do the math. Anyway, if they want to foul, let them foul. The Jazz are No. 13 in the NBA in fouls, but given the lower number of possessions they allow due to their slow pace along with allowing the second fewest field goal attempts, that becomes a significant percentage of possessions that involve a whistle. Portland should aim to get those whistles blowing like sweet, sweet music, which will certainly rile Utahns (the official name for residents. I looked it up so you don't have to). Getting Gobert on the bench would be an added bonus.
Bonus Strategy Suggestion—Get Meyers Leonard in the gameplan: Favors is a minus on defense even when healthy, so if he lines up, making him move as much as possible after a layoff seems like a good idea…but Noah Vonleh or Al-Farouq Aminu could create the same ends. The most intriguing wrinkle the Blazers could offer would be Leonard at center with the Blazers going small, creating a five-out situation and pulling Gobert out of the paint. Even if only for small stretches, it would be interesting to see how that would play out.
The Jazz are still shorthanded and the game is in Portland, but the Blazers will need to pull on the right strings to take this one. It’s a bit of a coin flip as to whether that happens. But let’s just say that if the refs like music, they’re in the right place.
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